Human Beings: Those Novelty Addicts!

Why our brains always crave the new, new, new thing and how that is related to creativity

How many different kinds of socks exist in the world? 

What about shoes?  Or just sneakers?  How many new sneaker styles were created just this year?  What about movies or TV shows?  Or iPhones?  Why do we keep buying new ones every single year?

This question could be posed of any consumer product, but the real target of inquiry should be the consumers.  Why do we buy billions of dollars worth of sneakers every year?  Or line up around the block for the latest iPhone?  Or clamor to see new movies when they get released?

Humans love the new, new thing. You could even say we live for the novelty. Last year’s perfect pair of near pristine Nike Air Max’s, get discarded for this year’s Nike Yeezy’s.  The new Call of Duty video game turns into a must-have because everyone stopped playing the last epic release over a year ago.  Or, we all scramble to see the latest James Bond movie even though we know exactly how it will end--just like the previous twenty releases did before it.

In their book, The Runaway Species, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman offer several good explanations on why human brains are addicted to the new.  And, as you might expect, it has everything to do with our evolution. 

Pattern Interruptions: Brains evolved to pay attention to differences and novelties

Our brains are constantly bombarded with information from our sensory channels.  Let's consider how human beings listen for instance.  Our ears don’t have an off-switch, so every sound around us is constantly streaming into our ear canals and hitting our sound receptors.  For example, imagine you’re sitting on your balcony reading a novel.  The sound of vehicle traffic rumbles from the street below, complete with car honking, doors slamming and the roar of car engines starting up.  There is also the chatter of passers-by, dogs barking and the clanking of dumpster lids but none of those sounds register in your brain.  They are all part of the normal sound pattern you’ve grown to expect in your neighborhood.  So you barely notice and get deeper engrossed in your book. 

Now let's say at this exact moment, still lost in your book, you hear the roar of a Tiger!  No matter how engrossed you may be in your book, you’re likely to stand at attention--immediately! The Tiger’s roar in your neighborhood is a definite pattern interruption.  The sheer novelty of it forces your brain to say something like, “hey dude, I know this book is really starting to get interesting but you better check out that sound I just sent to your inbox.  It sounds like a Tiger and I don’t think we’re anywhere near a zoo, so you should check it out. Now!”

A mental bias towards novelty kept our ancestors alive by enabling them to determine what new changes may have occurred in their environment.  Such changes could indicate an immediate need for self-preservation (running to safety from a wild animal) or survival-enhancement (running towards freshly flowering plants that could indicate the availability of fruits).   

Another simple example is noticing a quick movement in the periphery of your field of vision.  You’re bound to divert your straight ahead gaze in the direction of the movement.  It's a change to which your brain demands you pay some attention.  It could be a quickly darting and potentially delicious rabbit, or a rapidly approaching bear.

Today, pattern interruptions are exploited by advertisers and creators of all the consumer goods we purchase.  Undulating, inflatable dolls at car dealership strip malls, singing beer-drinking frogs on TV and giant pink mustaches on tiny Hondas are all designed to exploit your mind’s tendency to fixate on novelty and difference.

Repetition Suppression:  That joke you’ve heard 1000 times is no longer funny

A corollary to the pattern interruption is repetition suppression.  Repetition suppression is the result of our brains learning from pattern interruptions.  

Let's say you’re returning home from work one day and as you pull into your driveway, you notice a large pink unicorn with a huge rainbow tail prancing around in your neighbor’s front yard.  As we learned earlier, an event like that would qualify as the mother of all pattern interrupts.  You would probably spend the rest of your week talking about it, maybe even calling a joint-press conference with your neighbor to show it off.

Then let's say the unicorn visits every weekend.  It would probably still be the talk of the neighborhood for the next six, seven maybe eight weeks?  By the fifth or sixth month of Mr. Rainbow-tailed Unicorn showing up every weekend, even senile neighborhood porch dwellers would barely acknowledge his presence.  The once shiny unicorn might start feeling like a low-rent Bojack Horseman to you and, certainly, your neighbor.  

According to Brandt and Eagleman, “once our brains become familiar with something, the less neural energy it spends on it.”  Our brains are highly efficient pattern-recognition machines.  Patterns are helpful for making predictions in the future once they are learned.  And this is exactly what the brain does.  

When we encounter something novel, whether it's a new person, skill or event like a unicorn in your neighbor’s yard.  Our brains spend a lot of energy collecting information about this new “pattern.”  With increased exposure to the novel entity, the amount of energy spent by the brain on that entity diminishes as it learns what to expect.  So the first time you heard your uncle tell that one randy joke, your brain probably lit up significantly, as you doubled over with laughter.  On the 99th or 100th time, however, that same joke has become quite a yawn and left you wondering how you ever found it funny in the first place.

This rapid pattern-recognition and chunking down of patterns is how our brains keep learning and conserve energy at the same time.  The brain wants to spend energy on new things to notice, learn and assimilate about the environment not on old patterns it has already mastered.

Mastering patterns is how our minds try to predict the future in order to keep us safe and one-step ahead of our environment and the challenges it may bear on us.  Once our brains recognize a pattern, it jumps to the final outcome as quickly as possible and redirects resources towards processing for the next thing.  If familiarity with a pattern leads to mastery, it also inadvertently produces indifference and boredom as a by-product of that mastery.

Imagination: An infinite simulation holodeck

One of the most magical things about our human brains, as David Eagleman and Yuval Hariri would both agree, is our ability to simulate elaborate alternatives to reality.  It’s the simple act of asking ourselves, “What if,” and observing what comes out of that consideration.

Again, our brains are trying to teach us about the future and preserve us when we encounter unknown circumstances.  When we explore what-if scenarios, our minds are playing an adventure video game and testing out several options, routes and strategies.  This allows us to learn vital lessons in imagination-space without risking life and limb in reality. 

This is easily observable in young children at play.  Their imaginative adventures can transition fluidly from fantastic space explorations to saving lives on an operation table in the same scene.  Almost every parent has a story about watching their kids engage with an empty card box with as much enthusiasm as the toy that came in the box.  These children are practicing for a future beyond the safety of their parent’s living rooms.

Additionally, these imaginative simulations do not diminish with age.  Instead, our mental simulations become less fantastic and more rooted in reality.  We may no longer day dream about shooting aliens on Mars with double finger-guns, but we will mentally simulate taking our vacation time in July so we can go to the beach, versus waiting until December so we can go on a longer ski trip with the family.  The imagination is still exercised but on a more limited holodeck. 

The chief aim of all this mental simulation is to determine which decisions to make in reality.  Eagleman and Brandt say the mental simulation is the process of mediating numerous inputs into a viable course of action.  The mind deploys a trove of assimilated information in the service of exploring real world options.  It is constantly dissecting and recombining ideas, experiences, skills, facts, everything in order to produce new thoughts that could be of use to us.  Unlike computers, which return garbage information when fed garbage inputs, human minds can take garbage inputs and return real life gems!

Conclusion

Human minds cannot help but be drawn to the new, new thing.  The shiny object that deviates from expected norms will always command our attention, but only for so long.  Once the brain masters its pattern, it will lose interest in continuing to explore that pattern and move on to the next novel item.  This gives the brain ample material for creating elaborate simulations about life and our environment in order to produce viable options for real-life execution and continued survival.  It’s a never ending march that has transformed us from flint wielding huntsmen to space-bound astronauts.